The grimness of the situation overseas has strengthened her resolve to create at Thamee (pronounced thumb-MEE) a refuge of sorts for natives, or people who have traveled there and appreciate a country and a culture shaped by shared borders with five countries: China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh and India.
At a time when many of her peers are retired or thinking of it, Law-Yone, 68, has become the public face of the ambitious restaurant she co-owns with her daughter, Simone Jacobson, and Eric Wang. Jacobson, who handles external relations, including marketing support, left Washington in October. She’s currently in Mexico, writing, hosting pop-up pairing dinners and exploring the emerging natural wine movement there. (Expect the beverage list at Thamee to reflect her finds soon.) Wang, who handles administrative duties ranging from accounting to strategy, moved to Philadelphia in March to be closer to his girlfriend. Yet the business partners remain connected. (Zoom helps.) Decisions big and small are made as a trio.
The latest major change at Thamee (“daughter” in English) turned a full-service restaurant into a fast-casual operation, a shift Law-Yone says is fine with her. Meals in her homeland tend to be loose affairs involving multiple tastes.
The first person you’re likely to encounter at Thamee is general manager Jordan Lee, whose broad smile and friendly “hello” flash like a neon sign. Lee is quick to turn over a takeout order, mix a cocktail or explain how the new ordering works. Guests use their smartphones to order at the table; a text alerts customers when their food and drink are ready to be retrieved at the counter.
You might notice a tattoo of a chinthe, or temple lion, on Lee’s right arm. The same emblem is inked on Wang’s left arm. Law-Yone says the matching lions — symbols of protection in Myanmar — give her assurance. The unspoken message: “We have each other’s backs.”
Thamee takes care of its workers; the restaurant’s “we got us” philosophy means a 30 percent service charge, explained on the bottom of the bill. This diner appreciates knowing the fee goes toward livable wages for everyone on staff, plus health benefits and profit-sharing.
The second face you’re apt to see at Thamee is that of the chef. One moment, she’s supervising her staff in the open kitchen. The next, she might be climbing the steps to the attractive, second-floor dining room to deliver something on a platter lined with a banana leaf. Elsewhere, servers might announce a dish and turn on their heels. Law-Yone is compelled to share stories about her food.
Take the gourd fritters, finger-length slices of vegetable sheathed in a batter made with (surprise!) feta cheese. “My father was from Yunan, the only place in China that makes cheese,” says the chef, who then details how cheese was hung out on bamboo poles to dry, in the absence of refrigeration. At Thamee, the hot fritters are served with a dip that Law-Yone makes from chiles, lime juice and roasted garlic oil and that rolls around on the tongue just as you might expect.
A salad showcasing white flower mushrooms prompts an anecdote about the last trip the owners took to Myanmar, three years ago. Law-Yone asked the hotel kitchen to make a dish they would typically cook for themselves, nothing fussy. Her translation of the request highlights the light crunch of the pale, gelatinous mushroom, its ruffles dressed with lime juice, garlic oil and roasted chickpea flour for creaminess. (Ground pork in the dish is optional.)
Thamee keeps an herb garden on its patio. Seemingly every plant — lemongrass, mint, cilantro, lime leaves — makes its way into the chef’s golden-green ground pork meatballs, dense, delicious, a touch sour. You may think you know what to expect of a samusa. The surprise here is the shape and texture; mine was the size of a pocket book and shattered like a croissant. Jafar Umarov, the sous-chef who inspired the dish, is from Tajikistan, where such flaky pastries are more common. The filling, from Law-Yone, is all hers: diced potatoes (raw and cooked), peas and onions punched up with garlic and ginger. Three of us split the appetizer, and all of us wished we had ordered our own. Intensifying the fun is a tamarind sauce, dark with fermented Chinese black beans. “We’re into the funk,” says the chef.
There’s no other food like this in Washington. Pale green, saucer-size wonton “cups” make fine stages for the signature pickled tea leaf salad, a tangy and nutty toss that also embraces julienned cabbage, white peas and sesame seeds. Eating it makes you feel like you’re doing your body some good. A tangle of slippery, garlic-blasted lo mein noodles shows up slick with chile oil, crisp with fried shallots and colorful with red cabbage and chopped scallions. The eyes eat first. Meat and potatoes take on new meaning when they’re given the Burmese treatment — cooked with pungent herbs and garam masala — and presented as a pleasantly sour beef curry. A squeeze of lime brightens the eating.
The raciest dish on the menu is the chef’s mapo tofu. Law-Yone turns eggplant and mushrooms into a meaty-tasting “sauce” — numbing with Sichuan peppercorns and both sweet and warm with Chinese five-spice — before adding it to cubes of tofu so delicate they almost dissolve on the tongue.
Food that tastes like a celebration merits a proper chaser. The bar delivers. The drink I tend to repeat is the gin-based Bago Club swirled with dry curaçao and orange bitters.
As before, Thamee sells spices and some of its condiments from a small bodega near the door. My choice flavor booster is a jar of pungent balachaung, which has a place of prominence on my kitchen counter. A sprinkle of brick-red dried fish, shrimp and chiles wakes up whatever it touches.
The woman responsible for what lands on your table is also the talent behind the acrylic paintings on the wall — outsized heads of women with thanaka, a paste made from sandalwood bark, rubbed across their cheeks. (The natural makeup reportedly softens the skin and prevents sunburn.) I begin to wonder. Where does Law-Yone get her energy? The former teacher says her late entry into taxing restaurant work helps. She has none of the physical worries of so many of her peers in the business. “I have a strong back.”
Law-Yone says she can’t help Myanmar. “I feel helpless, so far away” from the turmoil in her motherland. Thamee, she says, is “my way of keeping it alive. It’s all I can do.”
It’s a lot, chef.
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Unrated during the pandemic
Thamee 1320 H St. NE. 202-750-6529. thamee.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, takeout and delivery 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Prices: Appetizers $6 to $12, main dishes $17 to $19. Accessibility: Wheelchair users are asked to call in advance of a visit. The restaurant keeps a ramp for navigating the high step at the entrance, but not the stairs leading to the second-floor dining room and patio. A ground-floor restroom is ADA-compliant.